Eric Barreto, an associate professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, started his Bible study on “differences and diversity in the Book of Acts” at Big Tent by asking the 600 gathered in St. Louis to turn to the person next to them and tell the story of when they first experienced their race or experienced people of another race. Of course, he says, no one needs to share. But who is he kidding? We are Presbyterians. We love to talk. Soon the chapel’s vaulted ceiling was swirling with noise like the “thunderous cascades” described in Revelation as strangers shared intimate stories.
The stranger to my right is the clerk of a presbytery. She is an elegant senior with short red curls, a thin long face and glasses on her sharp nose through which she looks at me with compassionate eyes. She doesn’t look anything like my mother, but she still reminds me of her.
She tells her story of growing up with a black nanny, a privilege she didn’t recognize until college because she had been born into it. As the proverbial saying goes, fishes don’t know they are in water.
I tell her I knew my race the moment I landed at John F. Kennedy airport in New York. I was seven with only two English phrases: “Thank you” and “Where is the bathroom?” I entered first grade and was promptly ridiculed for my slanted eyes. But this was, to an extent, the usual playground chaffing. Children are cruel in their name-calling; I speak of children as if they are another species, but we were all once children. We would take the slightest difference in physical feature and turn it into a slur. “Big eyes,” “pig nose” and “flat face” – these slurs might stir painful memories for some readers either as the recipient or perpetrator. Ribbing happened in Korea just as it happened at P.S. 20, my elementary school. The slurs hurt, but cruelty inflicting the hurt was imitative cruelty. The kids in my grade saw older students use these words, so they acted likewise for the cool factor. Most of the time, kids riff on each other and then would forget about it as teammates were needed for a game. I played shortstop, and suddenly I wasn’t “slanty eyes” but Ozzie Smith. And alliances change quickly, which meant I wasn’t out forever. I knew that I was Korean, I didn’t speak English well and I wasn’t white, but I had friends. I belonged.
But an incident in middle school shattered that illusion. I learned that whiteness and American were synonyms in the internal dictionary for many Americans. We had bought a house in Long Island, leaving the roach-infested apartment in Queens. It was a ranch home with a fenced yard and we decorated the walls with our family photos; I covered my room with posters of the 1986 World Series Champion N.Y. Mets. We also hung framed copies of our citizenship documents, thanks to what my father called a divine act: the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986. It was a good year for us. We were home.
Then returning from worship one Wednesday evening, we turned into our driveway and saw black graffiti across our front door. It hissed, “Go back home chink!”
We moved out about a year later.
I told this story in different forms to difference audiences. I told it in a poem, in a personal essay on America’s hypocrisy and in a column on the American dream. I’ve told it to my Asian friends, and they all chime in with similar stories. I’ve told it in a Duke religion class and heard many gasp.
Whenever I tell this story, I usually feel the lingering tremors of anger for the invasion of my home. But when I told this story to my stranger-confessor at Big Tent, I felt sadness surging in me and threatening to break out into tears.
Barreto, who knows how to artfully work an audience, claps twice and turns the audience’s attention back to him and silence falls quickly. As he goes deeper into the Bible study, my thoughts continued to flit in and out as I tried to figure out why my heart swelled with sadness. It was a new emotion for the memory.
I flew into St. Louis for Big Tent from New York. I live in Raleigh, North Carolina, but I had been in New York to celebrate my mother’s 70th birthday with family. My brother from Seattle flew in with his family of four. My mother’s sisters from Canada and Korea flew in, too.
My family of five drove to New York. When we arrived at my mother’s home, she came down the stairs a little slower than I remembered her moving in the past. I hugged and kissed her, her body smaller than I remembered. And her hair didn’t look quite right. She used to wear a majestic pompadour, now, I find out, she is wearing a wig.
“When did you start wearing them?” I ask her as we are setting up for dinner.
“A year ago.” Her hair loss had been sudden.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
She laughs as she tastes her kimchi stew.
I ask: “How much was it?”
My brother finds out that it was a $30, an artificial wig. Wigs made of natural hair can cost $1,000. “I’m going to buy her a mix, $300 range. That will be my gift to her,” he says.
In a week, she will be moving out of the house and into a single bedroom apartment. My parents can no longer afford anything more. My father is retired. The church (not Presbyterian) didn’t pay for pension, which is the norm for immigrant churches. Mother started working for a company providing home assistance service for elderly. She goes to senior invalids and helps out in the house: cleaning toilets, emptying trash, chit chatting and nodding to re-run stories, changing the bedding of their hospital beds.
All this time I thought she was working as a counselor for seniors. That is how she described her work to me
“It’s ministry, my son. I go to lonely elders. I sit with them, talk to them. It’s simple really,” she told me over the phone when she first started working again.
My brother tells me, “She is not a counselor. She is a house maid.”
We hear what we want to hear. I’m sure she is framing her work as ministry, and should do so. It’s a good theology of work. And I’m sure she works with the same sense of calling and passion as she did with my father before he retired. She loved being a pastor’s wife. She enjoyed feeding the whole youth group and visiting at hospitals. She was a pastor, too. No. She a pastor. She is not just a maid. But she is also a maid. Her bones ache. She takes a painkiller almost every evening.
“How many hours do you work?” I ask her after all of the grandkids are in deep sleep after a full day of swimming – they are sprawled out on the living room, now reimagined into a camp.
“20 hours, 40 hours.”
I tell her my brother told me that she works 60 hours each week.
“Sometimes, if there is need.” She implies the need of the seniors. But I know it’s her own need to pay rent.
“How much do you make?” I ask.
“$10 an hour.”
“Is that after tax?”
Why did I ask when I already knew the answer? And does it even really matter?
My father is driving me to the airport to catch my plane to St. Louis. The sun isn’t up yet. The streets are lit only by street lamps. The Long Island expressway will be bumper-to-bumper in an hour. It’s dark so we miss the sign to the airport. The GPS gets us back on track. Both of us are squinting; now that I’m 43 my sight is also weakening.
Father is giving me advice.
“One thing I regret is not having held on to the home we bought.”
I’m not sure which house he is referring to because we moved around a lot. We probably lived on every neighborhood between Flushing and Syosset. We rented most of them. Few houses we bought, but it never worked out, for one reason or another.
“That house is probably worth a million today. I should have held on to it.”
The Long Island home?
I worry about my parents and increased of isolation as they age.
I invited them to live with us in North Carolina and my brother invited them to Seattle. They said North Carolina is too boring and Seattle always has rain (every time they visited him in Seattle, it rained ). But the simple fact is that they don’t have friends in either of those places. They need more than the ties of their family. They need a community that calls them for coffee or a game of golf. They need friends that bother them for a ride. They need to belong to a place; humans are tied to a place by the people of the place and never simply by the physical features of a place. As I imagined how they would begin their search for such a community in North Carolina, I was gifted with an appreciation of how difficult it is for seniors to move into a new city and start new relationships.
Theoretically and theologically, the church should lessen the anxiety of belonging. We should make it less an existential practice and more of a missional one – helping newcomers not only find a place of belonging, but find where the church needs them to serve. Every church should be practicing radical hospitality. Every stranger that enters a new place of worship should feel like he is meeting cousins he just never got to meet until then. For a Christian, every city should be a place she can belong because there is a church, a family, waiting for her in that city.
Barreto sees the story of the Pentecost as a story about belonging. All the nations gathered for Passover in Jerusalem suddenly understand each other. Before that unexpected morning call to worship, they all came to Jerusalem for the same reason: to fulfill a pilgrimage requirement. Yet they tented and hung out by language groups. God could have opened everyone’s ears to understand Pater’s Galilean Aramaic. But God decides to make understanding happen in their mother’s tongue, the language of their soul. As they look at each other in wonder and nod in agreement, they feel like they are family. They were gathered for the same God, but living in parallel universes; they had traveled to the same place for the same reason, but lived in different worlds. Now they were in the same place, still different, but having the same experience. Jerusalem was miles away for all of them, but it felt like home.
I write this as I fly back from Big Tent. The clouds are now white, rolling hills under me, and the riveting call to end poverty and racism in the world and in our churches by embracing diversity is ringing in my ears. My heart is both inspired and anxious because I’m still worried for my parents. I wonder if my parents will eventually move down to live with me in North Carolina. If they do and if they visit the church nearest to them, will they be welcomed home? Or will they be met with subtler – but still equally displacing – words like those graffitied on our door? Is there a home for them?
SAMUEL SON is co-pastor at New Life Triangle, a new multi-ethnic church/1001 new worshipping community of New Hope Presbytery in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is also a columnist for North State Journal.